The Kindertransport statue revisited

Every month, thousands of people read our post on the Kindertransport statue at Liverpool Street Station. I am in London for work. I decide to pay a visit to see how those five confused but proud children are doing.

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Previously unnoticed details catch my eye. Does the violin case mean there is a budding musical genius amonst them? I start to take more photographs. A lady in her eighties touches my arm. “They are beautiful aren’t they! I knew one of them. There were thousands of them: jewish children fleeing to England. It was years before that awful war.” I reply that indeed the bronze memorial is a very beautiful, poignant sculpture. “This is where I always meet my son” she continues. “We go for lunch!”

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The two girls, poised nevertheless, have stout shoes for their journey.

The elderly lady’s son, a well healed businessman, arrives. I overhear his first words after greeting his mother. “It makes me furious that people sit on it and leave their coffee cups!” Indeed, I have to remove some garbage before taking these photos. The problem is that this fabulous bronze monument, marking the point where the children arrived by train in London, is at the entrance to one of the city’s busiest stations and right outside McDonalds.

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The way Meisler has sculpted this girl’s right hand is masterful. The grip on the handle of the suitcase is loose and delicate. There is little weight in the case. It seems to imply that the children left their homes with only a few most valued possessions.

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Documenting Meisler’s attention to detail absorbs me. The pen clipped into the breast pocket of the boy’s tightly buttoned blazer speaks to learning and maybe academic potential. But again, those labels with numbers are chilling reminders of what was to come.

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I look up at this girl’s face. The image stays for the day. I hear a voice behind me. An academic-looking American arrives with a group of ten or so youngsters. “Here it is!” he says with an expansive gesture. “One of my masters students did her thesis about this statue!” He recounts the story of the Kindertransport to his charges.

A young man besuited-and-silk-tied  stands looking at the figures. He tells me he always stops here for a minute or so when passing through the station. He is a soldier. “It’s just incredible, what happened! I mean, unbelievable! It breaks me up!” I agree with him and tell him I am writing about the statue for a blog about beautiful stuff. He takes my card, shakes my hand firmly and strides away.

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In the ten minutes that it takes to snap these photos, I come to realise that, when it comes to sculpture in public places, the Kinderstransport statue is something of a celebrity. People are drawn to its beauty and to its story.

But reality is context. My last exchange is with a dishevelled youth with needle tracks in his forearms. He has had his wallet knicked and he needs ten pounds to get a train to go and see his mum! My money stays in my pocket. I point out that maybe it’s not the best place to peddle his hard luck story. “Whatever!” he says and wanders off.

The Kindertransport statue, Liverpool Street Station, London

I arrive at Liverpool Street Station in London amid determined commuters and disorientated tourists. Something catches my eye as I head up the stairs past McDonald’s. I find myself in front of a modern statue in bright bronze of a collection of five children. They are standing still and looking around. They don’t seem lost. Their features remind me of Jewish friends I have worked with.

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This is about the Kindertransport. In 1938 and 1939, ten thousand unaccompanied Jewish children were transported to Britain to escape persecution in their hometowns in Germany and Austria. These children arrived at Liverpool Street station to be taken in by British families and foster homes. Only a few were reunited with their families after World War II.

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This 2006 commemorative statue is the work of Frank Meisler and Arie Oviada. It is beautiful, precise and poignant. The children are poised and proud. Their heads are held high. They are determined. They are looking to the future. They do not carry themselves as victims. Their faces radiate hope. A greater innocence is underscored by the youngest girl clutching a teddy bear. The young boy maybe brings musical talent with him; he has a violin case by his side. The tallest girl’s pubescence has been captured to perfection.

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However, each child has a tag with a number. Behind the group is a short section of railway line. Both tags and rails serve as disconcerting reminders of what might have been had they not been brought to Britain. Numbers might have been tattooed on their arms and railways might have brought them to Auschwitz or Belsen rather than to Liverpool Street.

Talking Beautiful Stuff is about the narrative behind any output of the human impulse to create; this beautiful stuff has narrative by the ton. Once again, I am struck by how really, really ugly stuff can be the source of inspiration for really, really beautiful stuff.

And if this was not testament enough to the human folly and cruelty of the 20th century, twenty metres away is the marbled roll of honour with the names of 900 (yes, 900!) employees of the Great Eastern Railway who lost their lives in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. I realise that, had they survived, they might have witnessed the Kindertransport. I feel tears in my eyes and head for the bustling sanctuary of the London Underground.

The Kindertransport commemorative statue was sponsored by the Association of Jewish Refugees and the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief.